Universal and Particular

Universal and Particular

From Bob Jones University to the Catholic Church

 

Taking dramatic steps of faith runs in the family. In the eighteenth century my

Mennonite ancestors left Switzerland for the new colony of Pennsylvania to find

religious freedom. Seven generations later my part of the family were still in

Pennsylvania, but they had left the Mennonites, and I was brought up in a Bible church

which was part of a loose-knit confederation of churches called the Independent

Fundamental Churches of America.

 

The independent Bible church movement was an offshoot of a significant shift in postwar

American Protestantism. Conservative Christians who were disenchanted with the

liberal drift of the main Protestant denominations simply up and left and started their

own churches. The same independent movement saw the foundation of a

fundamentalist college in the deep South by the Methodist evangelist Bob Jones. After

World War II my parents and aunts and uncles went to study there and it was natural

for my parents to send me and my brothers and sisters there in the 1970s.

The religion in our own home was simple, Bible-based and balanced. I will always be

thankful for the sincere and deep faith of my parents, and will always regard with pride

the great Christian heritage that I was given. On both sides of the family our people were

committed Christians as far back as we could trace the family tree. In our own home,

like our Mennonite and Plymouth Brethren forebears, there was a quiet simplicity and

tolerance at the heart of our family’s faith. We believed Catholics were in error, but we

didn’t nurture hatred towards them. At Bob Jones the tone was different. There the

Catholic Church was clearly the ‘whore of Babylon’ and the Pope was the Anti-Christ.

Furthermore, the anti-Catholicism had the disagreeable whiff of the anti-Semitism and

racism which also marred the Southern culture.

 

At Bob Jones I majored in Interpretative Speech with a minor in English. At this stage I

immersed myself in English literature, and was greatly influenced by C.S.Lewis and his

band of literary Christians, the Inklings. This drew me to the whole culture of England. I

remember a friend gave me a picture book called The World of C.S.Lewis. One look

made me realize it was a world I wanted to enter. The book was full of soft-focus

photographs of Oxford quadrangles and people punting at Cambridge. There were black

and white photos of Lewis and his chums swilling dark beer in dark English pubs. The

book was all misty fields, quiet English rivers, the green and gold of the English

countryside, roaring fires in Oxford common rooms, the heavenly glories of college

chapels and the homely glories of Anglican country churches.

Ironically, it was at Bob Jones that I discovered the Anglican Church. Although the

student body at Bob Jones University was predominantly independent Evangelical and

Baptist, the school’s own position was ‘non denominational’. This meant that they

welcomed believers from every (Protestant) denomination. However, the Episcopal

Church was so liberal that we wouldn’t have been allowed to go there. But as it

happened a wealthy member of the Bob Jones board was a founding member of a little

church that had broken away from the Episcopal Church. I think his “influence” was the

reason we were allowed to go to the deliciously named “Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox

Church.” I suspect it was this wealthy man’s influence because the week after he died the

university put the little church off limits. What helps to confirm my suspicion that they

were holding out for his will to clear, is that a year or so after his death the spanking new

library was named as a memorial to the same man.

 

The little breakaway church was founded by a “bishop” who was like a character out of a

Tennessee Williams play. He drove a Lincoln Continental, and had a taste for wine, and

wealthy Episcopalian ladies. His orders were “valid, but irregular”. He had been made a

bishop by a renegade Eastern Orthodox bishop as well as a breakaway Catholic. Despite

the bizarre background, with more than a whiff of corruption, the little Anglican Church

connected us with a faith that felt more ancient than the local independent Bible

Church. So along with some other disenchanted fundamentalists I went to the little

stone church in the bad part of town and discovered the glories of the Book of Common

Prayer, lighting candles and kneeling to pray. We learned to chant the psalms,

discovered Lent and Advent, and felt we were in touch with the religion of C.S.Lewis, the

Inklings and the great English writers.

 

While at Bob Jones I had visited England a couple of times, and feeling the call to the

ministry, I wondered if I might be ordained as an Anglican priest in England and maybe

look after one of the beautiful medieval churches in the English countryside. For any

lover of C.S.Lewis, Oxford was a kind of mecca, so when the opportunity to study at

Oxford came my way I jumped at the chance and came to England for good. After

theological studies the door opened for me to be ordained, and a life of ministry in the

Anglican Church opened up.

 

It was great to spend three years at Oxford, and this whole period was a time of great

growth and learning. Often it is the little bit of wisdom that makes the most impression,

and I will never forget a little quotation from the great Anglican socialist F.D.Maurice.

He wrote, “A man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.”

After the negative attitude of American fundamentalism and the cynical religious doubt

that prevailed at Oxford, Maurice’s statement was like a breath of fresh air. It was

sometimes tempting to feel guilty about leaving the religion of my family and

upbringing, but with Maurice’s viewpoint I increasingly felt the Anglican riches I was

discovering were not so much a denial of my family faith, but an addition to it. So I took

Maurice’s dictum as my motto, and whenever I came across something new, asked if I

was denying or affirming. If I wasn’t able to affirm the new doctrine or religious practice

I wouldn’t deny it–I would simply let it be.

 

This meant that during my studies I explored the more Catholic aspects of Anglicanism.

I discovered that T.S.Eliot was an Anglo-Catholic and that C.S.Lewis worshipped in his

“high” college chapel and that his parish church in Headington was also more Catholic

than low-church. Dorothy Sayers and Charles Williams were also on the Catholic end of

Anglicanism, and J.R.R.Tolkien was actually a Roman Catholic, as was Graham Greene

and Evelyn Waugh. Through these writers I was increasingly drawn to the Catholic

spiritual tradition in the Church of England. I did a special study of the history of the

Anglo-Catholic Oxford movement and went to an excellent series of lectures on

fourteenth century English spiritual writers given by the English Dominican Simon

Tugwell. When I had the chance I worshipped at Pusey House—one of the Anglo-

Catholic student centers at Oxford, and found myself gravitating to the high culture and

high religion found in the college chapels and the cathedral at Christ Church. At Oxford

it became clear that at the Lord’s banquet the Master was calling, ‘friend come up

higher!’ (Luke 14:10.)

 

My understanding during all this time was that I was not repudiating my Evangelical

upbringing. I was simply adding more to it. C.S.Lewis had given me a love for Mere

Christianity. I wanted “More Christianity.” Through Anglicanism I was able to explore

the historic faith while still holding to the Protestant basics that I considered nonnegotiable.

While I was happy to grow into Anglo-Catholicism, I was also exploring the

renewal movement and learning to appreciate the good aspects of liberalism, like its zeal

for social action and concern for the poor. I saw Anglicanism as a broad church that

could include all these elements. While I was happy to be influenced by these other

strands, like many Anglicans, I also wanted my faith to be cross-fertilized by the good

things of Roman Catholicism.

 

During my time at Oxford a Catholic friend in American named June suggested I might

like to visit a Benedictine monastery. I made my first visit and found myself drawn to

the quiet life of prayer and study that the monks followed. After finishing my theological

studies I was ordained as a curate (assistant minister) in the Anglican Church. My

ministry lasted four years, and ended when I was in my late twenties. When my curacy

was finished I had three months free and decided to hitch-hike to Jerusalem. So with

backpack and a pair of sturdy shoes, I headed across France and Italy staying in various

monasteries and convents along the route. I found my journey went best when I fit in

with the monastic routine. So I would begin a day’s journey with Mass and morning

offices in one monastery, say my Anglican prayers while travelling, then arrive at the

next monastery in time for Vespers, the evening meal and Night Prayer.

 

The pilgrimage to the Holy Lands also took me further into Christian history. Part of the

appeal of being an Anglican was to leave the modern ‘do as you please ‘church of

Protestant America and find deeper routes in the history and faith of Europe. I wanted

to be part of the ‘ancient church in England.’ Suddenly travelling through France, Italy

and Greece to Israel I was immersed in a religion obviously older and deeper still than

Anglicanism. The Benedictine monasteries put me in touch with roots of faith which

were deeper and more concrete than I imagined could exist. Although I realized my

views were becoming “more Catholic” I didn’t fight it. I wanted to “be right in what I

affirmed.”

 

When I came back from the Holy Lands I went to be a chaplain at Kings College in

Cambridge. For two years I shared in the most beautiful worship in one of the most

sublime Christian buildings in the world. Although the liturgy, music and architecture

were superb, the religion at Cambridge was rotten with relativism and personal

immorality. I knew I wasn’t cut out for either the academic life or the cultured highlands

of Anglicanism, so I started to look for a parish.

 

My dream of being a country Anglican vicar came true and I went to be the parish priest

of two beautiful old churches on the Isle of Wight, just off the South coast of England. By

this time I had lived in England for ten years. I was in my early thirties, and had moved

quite far in my understanding of the faith. Most of all, I had come to regard my ministry

in a very Catholic way. I knew we were separated from Rome, but I considered my

ministry to be part of the whole Catholic Church. Despite the formal separation I

thought of Anglicanism as a branch of the Catholic Church, and prayed for the time of

our eventual re-union.

 

My pilgrimage thus far had been mostly intuitive. I simply adopted the Catholic

practices that seemed suitable, and when it came time to question certain doctrines I

looked at them and made every effort to affirm and not deny. This mindset brought me

almost unconsciously to the very doorstep of the Catholic Church. What I said to some

friends who were considering conversion was true of me as well — I was more Catholic

than I myself realized.

 

As a result of this gradual process my thinking remained fuzzy for some time. Four years

after I went to my parish the Church of England voted to ordain women as priests. The

decision had been brewing for a long time, but I had put it on one side, and not thought

about it much. But it was the final decision that helped clear my vision. For me, women

ministers were not the problem. Instead it was what the General Synod’s decisionmaking

process revealed about the true nature of the Church of England. The key

question was–”Is the Anglican Church a Protestant church or a part of the Catholic

Church? If she wishes to be considered Catholic then she does not have the authority to

ordain women as priests. But if Anglican Church was a Protestant Church, then like all

Protestant groups, guessed she could do whatever she wanted. Read More

 

 

 

 

 

 


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